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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

10,000 Square Miles: Montana Forests Testing Planning Reforms

U.S. Forest Service.
U.S. Forest Service.

Ten thousand square miles. That’s roughly how much public land in Montana the US Forest Service is making new plans for at the moment.

Three National Forests, the Flathead, the Helena-Lewis and Clark and the Custer-Gallatin are all writing the basic governing documents that lay out what can and can’t happen, and where, in their vast territories. In January the Helena-Lewis and Clark is holding a series of public input meetings on their new forest plan.

All this new planning is happening under new forest planning rules. University of Montana Professor of Natural Resource Policy Martin Nie is on a national advisory committee about those rules. 

Martin Nie, Director, Bolle Center for People and Forests, University of Montana: There's some common things found in most plans, such as the designation of particular management areas, and zones, lines on maps, basically. And in each one of those management areas are particular rules about how they must be managed, over the next 15 to 20 years.

Eric Whitney: I know at the end of January the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest is going to be holding a series of public meetings for people to have input into the planning process. People are probably going to wonder, is it worth their time to learn about the forest plan, giving input?

Nie: I believe so. Plans in Montana are being written pursuant to this new federal regulation that's called the 2012 Planning Rule, and I'm a member of the national advisory committee for implementing that rule. It's a really under-appreciated achievement by the Obama administration, that has a lot of potential. And one of the anchor points of that whole rule is having more meaningful public engagement and collaboration. And so I think public participation is absolutely essential.

Whitney: How likely is it for one particular interest group to capture the planning process and advance their agenda, maybe at the expense of others?

Nie: Planning can be an ugly process, and it's at the plan level that we really see what multiple use will look like at the individual National Forest level. And there is no getting around the tradeoffs that have to made in National Forest management. The agency has a very open-ended, famous multiple use mandate that provides the agency quite a bit of discretion, but we've placed the National Forest Management Act on top of multiple use, and it provides some additional constraints for the agency, and the 2012 rule does the same, telling the Forest Service what it must consider along the way in preparing these plans. But there's no getting around the politics of planning, and so you're going to have the various interest groups trying to get more wilderness or more timber supply, or more grazing, or more quiet recreation, or more motorized use. That's the nature of multiple use management.

The hope in this go-round is that we've learned some lessons since we've first prepared those first generation plans in the 1980's, and we can do this in a more collaborative way, in a more constructive way, utilize best available science.

Whitney: You talk about the multiple use mandate the Forest Service has. If the agency has that mandate, why is it important to have people participate?

Nie: Well, what's that saying? You're either at the table or you're on the menu?

So my recommendation would be, be at the table. I think folks that are involved in National Forest management recognize the integrated nature of all of these issues. There definitely will be constituencies that just focus on the motorized issue, and just focus on, say, recommended wilderness, and that's fine. But I think there'll be others from rural communities, to other environmental advocates that'll take a broader approach, and look at how all of these various parts fit together.

Whitney: These planning meetings for these specific forest plans are being held in communities very close to the National Forests. What's to keep the local interests from dominating management of forests when those local interests might be at odds with the goals or aspirations of the greater American public?

Nie: Thankfully these are federal lands and managed in the national interests, and our environmental laws make that very clear. At the same time our environmental laws provide a really constructive opportunity for states and counties and tribal governments to participate, and in my view that provides a very constructive tension between balancing local and national interests. But we have national interest groups that are at the table, and I have no doubt that that national interest will be represented.

Whitney: Do you think that every one of these is going to be at least administratively appealed if not litigated in the federal courts?

Nie: One, the new 2012 planning rule has a new objections process. So it allows for an objection for those groups that have participated since the very early stages. It's going to be very hard for any group that has not participated in planning to have any voice in the plan whatsoever because of the new 2012 regulation.

Whitney: But, there's the judicial process afterwards, so?

Nie: Plans themselves cannot be litigated, and that's a misconception. Because of various Supreme Court decisions, you can't litigate the plan itself, you have to wait until the project that's implementing the plan is on the ground before litigation happens.

Whitney: Tell me about how the new planning process is different and better than the old one.

Nie: Plans took a long time to write, and they were very expensive, and there was also a concern that those old regulations made it much more difficult for the agency to adapt to new information, and context, and emerging science.

And, it's been a really tough sledding to get new forest planning regulations. Clinton was not successful in doing so in 2000, the Bush administration tried in 2005 and 2007-'08, those were held to be unlawful by the courts. So it was a heavy lift by the Obama administration to get this new rule. And, you know, its anchor points are: best available science, more collaboration, and to create a new planning process that can be more adaptable.

Whitney: With the new, incoming administration -

Nie: I don't know what's going to happen. It's hard for me to believe that the new administration is going to go back to the old planning regulations, or start with a new planning regulation. I mean, they'd have to go through the entire federal rulemaking process again. They'd have to go through the whole NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) analysis again, and no one was too happy with the old 1982 regulations.

The new regulations, and we have this federal advisory committee that I'm a member of, it has buy-in from about any interest that you can imagine; tribal representatives, and timber and mining, grazing, environmental, outdoor recreation.

Whitney: I guess the other option would be for Congress to write more specific laws, do you have concerns about that?

Nie: Oh, absolutely, and it's a great question. I think that's what we're going to see in the next year, a big pivot point. We've seen a number of proposed bills that are really radical overhauls of the existing legal structure, in terms of NEPA, in terms of National Forest management, and so that'll be the question. And I don't know what to expect in that regard. We're at such a pivotal crossroads with federal lands management. It goes even beyond the National Forests. We've just had one pendulum swing from another for the last 20 years. And you've seen our federal land agencies swing between administrations, and so yeah, I think planning does offer that potential of having a very grounded, place-specific sort of direction for an agency that has the potential of a lot of local and national buy-in.

Whitney: What advice do you have for how people can meaningfully participate in the planning process?

Nie: I'm sure a lot of those citizens who don't have the time to be as engaged as they'd like have a proxy of some sort. They're a member of an interest group, and that interest group is at the table. I'm consistently blown away by how sophisticated some of that public input and comment actually is. Because people know those landscapes, they use those landscapes. Some people earn a living from those landscapes, so they can write very detailed comments that have to be taken into serious account.

Whitney: But it sounds like it really boils down to difficult decisions for the individual forest supervisor and their staff, because the mandate isn't just use the best available science, or just use the point of view that gets the most comments. It's, balance the public interest with science, with various federal environmental laws. It sounds like a very tough job.

Nie: Yeah, you've got to thread the needle. It's a tough gig.

Whitney: Have there been forest plans that have been completely re-written under the 2012 law yet, or are we still in that process?

Nie: The Francis Marion was the first out of the gate, and just completed a few months ago, in South Carolina. Right after it was the Flathead National Forest, and the Sierra Nevada, so it was an interesting contrast to see a couple dozen people that participated in the Francis Marion. I think they received no more than 24 public comment letters. And contrast that to the thousands of comments that come in to the Flathead from all over the country, it's an interesting contrast.

Whitney: It sounds like the Flathead and some of these forests in Montana are going to be a real opportunity to prove whether the 2012 rule is the reform...

Nie: Absolutely. And the Flathead is a challenging position, because they have grizzly bear issues, and lynx issues, among others. So it's a tough National Forest.

Whitney: Do you have a particular outcome or a particular rubric for when you'll know whether the 2012 rule was effective at making forest planning better?

Nie: I think the next few years are going to be critical for me. The idea was to let these pilots basically try out the 2012 rule, learn some lessons along the way, and then apply them to second generation, or this next batch of plans we're seeing, like on the Helena-Lewis and Clark. And so I think in the next couple of years we're really going to get a sense of what these plans look like.

Every one of our interests at the table will probably look at it through the lens of, you know, the timber industry is looking for certain things, and the ranching industry, and so on - I am really pushing for plans to be as adaptable as possible. But also have plans that provide some political and legal accountability.

And most of all I want plans that mean something. I really believe that if we're going to do planning, then we might as well do planning right. So we can get a lot of these big fights and big battles done at the planning level, and you can have environmental groups and the timber industry agree to some places in terms of suitability or whatever that might be, and some wildlife decisions, if we get some of those battles done at the planning level, hopefully the project level will be a little easier.

You know, the 2012 rule calls this an all lands approach, trying to put individual National Forests in their larger social and ecological context. And I think that's a positive step. To take a larger sort of macro-level look at that unit.

Eric Whitney is NPR's Mountain West/Great Plains Bureau Chief, and was the former news director for Montana Public Radio.
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